David Pointon from FAST Meetings Co. looks at how conferences can be great forums for collaboration, if we allow them to be.


Did you know that next generation space science technology allows satellites to track our location on the ground within one centimetre accuracy? Imagine an iPhone app that allowed you to find your purse! But this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for highly effective collaboration across many players in the spatial sciences sector.
Collaboration is about working effectively with multiple players to achieve a shared goal. Unlike most conference formats that allow for networking and ideas sharing about common issues, a collaborative conference goes further and seeks to produce a shared outcome that will benefit all the players.
So how can you allow your conference to facilitate collaboration? There are four important ingredients that were at the heart of the space science next generation technology: finding a ‘why’ that unites people; having all the players in the room; meeting people where they are; and providing the time and space. Let’s look at each of these:

1. Find a ‘why’ that unites people

Some of the big issues across industries are divisive and conference planners can be naturally reluctant to frame conferences around issues that could bring conflict. Who would dare get the coal seam gas generators, farmers and greenies together for example? Before collaboration could begin across the spatial science fraternity, there needed to be a reason to bring people together with very different agendas. In Australia, that ‘why’ was the risk of having the technologies dictated by other countries who were better organised.

  • What is the burning issue in your industry that polarises people?
  • What is an underlying goal that all players would benefit from achieving to address that issue?

2. Have all the players in the room

Many conferences tend to attract large numbers of certain stakeholders, but it can be difficult to attract a wide spectrum. Collaborative conferences are a great opportunity to expand the range of players you attract, thereby broadening the influence and scope of your brand. An initial meeting to kick off the goal of creating an Australian strategic plan for the new space science technology brought together industry competitors, academics, three levels of government, and related associations.

  • Who are all the players who influence the issue this conference is trying to address?
  • How can we sensitively invite contentious, alienated or fringe players to participate?

3. Meet people where they are

A critical ingredient to get collaboration going is to ensure people feel welcomed, and heard. Rather than loading up collaborative conferences with lots of speakers, it is important to engage early on in conversations whereby the various players are able to voice their views on the issues, opportunities and the goal to be achieved.
The spatial science fraternity came to life on the first morning of their collaborative conference once all delegates were given a chance to connect with their own passion and beliefs about the possibilities, and risks, of pursuing an Australian strategic plan for satellite technology.

  • What conversations can you host that will allow everyone to contribute?
  • What underlying issues or concerns should be surfaced early on so that the ‘elephants in the room’ get discussed?

4. Provide the time and space

It takes time for people across an industry or sector to get comfortable working together for a common goal. What may be planned as a half day workshop attached to your conference can take a life of its own and require additional sessions. It is often useful to allow space between multiple sessions for reflection, research and deeper solutions to emerge.
The spatial science industry ultimately took 18 months, three conferences and a working group to deliver an Australian strategic plan. But the investment has paid back, as they now have support from all three levels of government to develop collaborative industry technologies that will ultimately lead to benefits to all Australians. A collaborative conference is more than networking and requires a considered and careful approach. But the impact can be significant, if we just allow it to happen. m